BRUSSELS, Belgium -- After a late start, Europe's pharmaceutical biotechnology sector is now growing fast, although not as fast as its U.S. counterpart, said the European Commission in a report adopted on Nov. 25. The report, which is part of a European Union (EU) attempt to reduce the damage caused to the European medicines industry by differing national price and reimbursement systems across the 15 member states, says that some degree of harmonization in the marketing and economic conditions for medicines "is the single most important step needed to make Europe a more attractive research and development investment location."

But this step is not the only one, the report said, pointing also to the need for access to venture capital; public funding of research; programs to exploit synergies between academia and industry, as well as between basic and applied research; and public understanding and acceptance of new technologies, including biotechnology and gene therapy.

The competitiveness of the European industry appears to be weakening, the report concludes. Two decades ago, Europe led the way in pharmaceutical research and development; more recently, judging from patent filings, Europe has been overtaken by the U.S. The trend identified in the last such commission report, in 1994, has been confirmed by the latest data. Of the 47 new active substances launched on the world market in 1997, 19 had been discovered and developed in Europe. Thirty years ago, Europe's share of pharmaceutical discoveries was 65 percent On the biotechnology side, Europe "has made a particularly poor start compared with progress in the United States," the report said. Figures compiled in 1995 on the invention and marketing of biotechnology-derived new active substances put the U.S. share at 76 percent, Japan's at 14 percent, and Europe's at 10 percent.

"There are, however, welcome signs that this is starting to change," adds the commission. Data based on a total of 770 biotechnology-derived medicines (including 206 genetically engineered ones) under development at the end of 1995 indicate that 25 percent of the biopharmaceutical development work is currently located in Europe. *